Place for Advertisement

Please Contact:

The Santals in Bangladesh: Problems, Needs and Development Potentials

Dr. Muhammad Samad

Professor of the Institute of Social Welfare and Research, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh


There are about 70 distinctly recognizable indigenous nationalities in Bangladesh. Among them, Santals are one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable indigenous communities. Land-grabbing, threats, evictions and killings have marginalized them to such an extent that their existence in Bangladesh is

currently at stake. Recently a study was conducted in order to assess the problems and needs of the Santals and to initiate development intervention for improving their life situation. This article presents the predicaments of Santal community and provides recommendations for the well being of this disadvantaged indigenous community based on the findings of the study conducted.


The Santals are one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable indigenous communities in Bangladesh. For hundreds of years, they have been facing serious violations of human rights and the pace has accelerated since the independence. Land-grabbing, threats, evictions and killings have marginalized them to such an extent that their existence in Bangladesh is currently at stake. They do not have access to decision-making bodies and don't get justice. Thus, they have become one of the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of the population. The Santals have now become day laborers in their own lands. A report published by RDC shows that almost 92 percent Adivasis (indigenous peoples) of the North Bengal, most of them are Santals, work as day laborers either throughout the year or part of it. According to the official census (1991) the total number of Santals in the country is 2, 02,744 but the Santal leaders claim that this figure is a gross underestimation.

The Santals do not have any say about what kind of 'development' they require. Very few organizations work with the Santals, but even there they do not have meaningful participation in the programs undertaken. There is a significant lack of understanding among both the government officials and the NGOs about the needs of the Santals as a nation and as a community. The major issues are thus unidentified, ignored, and finally, unheard by the 'development' agencies led by representatives of majority Bengali population. It is not just a case of ignorance; a basic change of attitude is required.

The Santals do not have cognigible access to education and income generating activities. They have a very long history of engaging in farming, but at present they do not have their own land. Some of them are migrant laborers and often face harassment and discrimination. Promoting education among the Santals is very important, but providing livelihood based on traditional skill, such as agriculture is similarly required. The drop-out rate in the primary school is very high, underlining the need for education using mother-tongue which is absent for Adivasis in the official discourse.

The Santals have excellent traditions of community life and culture. They have lovely dancing groups, which signify their social integration and solidarity.

They also have strong knowledge and skills about protecting environment and sustainable development.

The identity, culture, history and tradition of the Santals, and their distinct ways of life are now threatened. In Sylhet and Chittagong region, they have been even suffering from serious identity crisis. On the whole, they have been facing an uncertain future. Despite some remarkable international provisions,

declarations and conventions on indigenous populations protecting their human rights, many of the Santals are worried about their very existence in the country. They do not have access to information at local, national or international level, and they cannot use the international instruments of human rights.

The lack of leadership is also a vital issue for the Santals.


Indigenous peoples themselves are the main source of information on their life and livelihood. But traditional development strategy does not hear theirvoices. Their cries haven't been heard by the policy makers and project planners. The activities implemented by the NGOs in the name of development forindigenous peoples, have failed to bear much fruit, because indigenous peoples had no access or involvement in the planning and policy formulation of the organizations. In some areas development activities have created adverse impact, where the plan was too far removed from the local social, cultural and natural situation. So, the right way to identify the issues concerning the Santals is to involve them at every level of any project undertaken. Research and Development Collective(RDC) and SMNB organized 4 Focus Group Discussion (EGDs) at the grass-root level ( two in North Bengal and the other two in greater Sylhet) and today a Central Workshop is being held in Dhaka to understand further the issues tormenting the Santals, and to learn about their own thoughts on the redress. We also took a few in-depth interviews at the grass-root level.

Life Profile Santals : Problems and Needs

The main objective of the present study is to assess the problems and needs of the Santals and to initiate development intervention for improving their life situation. This section deals with the life profile i.e. the major problems and needs of the Santals particularly, the Santals living in North Bengal and greater Sylhet region of Bangladesh.

Santals in North Bengal

The two FGDs, a field-visit and several in-depth interviews were conducted in Phoolbari in order to understand the problems, needs and to determine probable development intervention for the Santals of North Bengal. The findings are as follows:

Land and Resource Grabbing

Needless to say, land is the vital resource of Santal community. Like other indigenous peoples, land and resource grabbing is the most tragic problem of the Santals in Bangladesh. The land peoples grabbing has been taking place mainly in two ways: firstly by the majority influential and secondly by Forest Department (FD) of the Government of Bangladesh (GDB). Land grabbing by majority influential Hundred percent FGD participants mentioned that the majority people adopt series of tactics for grabbing the lands of the Santals and other minority communities. In this regard, at first they prepare fake document through unholy alliance with the corrupt officials and staffs of the government land offices and try to occupy the lands. If any resistance comes, they start torturing by way of threatening, beating, sexual harassment on girls and housewives and finally setting houses on fire. At one stage, finding no way-out in terms of administrative and legal protection or help from the local people, the Santals are compelled to surrender their lands to the fake document holders. On the other hand, when a Santal wants to sell his land, due to lack of education and awareness, the buyer sometimes record three/four times more than the quantity proposed by the seller.

It is important to mention that there is a provision of prior permission from District Commissioners (DC) for the Santals in selling their land. In this respect, at Thana level the Chairman of 11 members Adivasi Committee verifies the identity of land-sellers. Generally, the Chairman of this Committee is selected on the basis of consensus or, if necessary, election is held through hand- rising.

The FGDs and in-depth interviews reveal that in a number of cases, for monetary gain, being involved with the corrupt government officials the Chairman plays dubious roles in land-selling process which deprive the Santal people from just price of their land.

Land-grabbing by Forest Department of GOB In the early 1980s, the forest Department of GOB illegally occupied about 1500 acres of land belonging to indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Nawabgonj under Dinajpur district of northern Bangladesh. 90 percent of the owners of these lands are Santals and the rest are the majority people (mostly Bengali Muslim). The FGDs, field-visits and general discussions with the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples reveal that once there was a village named Odrapara on these lands where now the forest is situated. Conspiring with the local influentially in order to force the. Santals to leave the village, they even set fire on some houses at that time. That is how the forest was created. Hence, the evicted Santals have been living in Amrakakhal, Joypur, GT Joypur, Pool banda, Dimlapara, Dhanerdanga etc. villages adjacent to the forest severe in economic hardship. But since 1980s, the Santals, legal owners of the forest, have been paying taxes on these lands.

Most of the participants of Phoolbari FGD, many of whom were from Nababganj, mentioned that at the time of forestation in early 1980s they were told that they would be given 50 percent share of the products of the forest in terms of cash or kind. But till today they have got nothing. Another significant face of the problem is that recently the majority people (mostly Bengali Muslims) have been given their lands back for farming after cutting the trees. On

the contrary, the lands owned by indigenous peoples ( i.e. Santals) are still occupied by Forest Department. At the time of field-visit, we observed that the Forest Department has been getting prepared for further plantation in Santal Lands. This discrimination is obviously a gross violation of human rights.

The participations of FGDs also mentioned that, even if the Santals go to the forest for collecting dried branches of tress or leaves, the forest department harasses them by filing false cases charging them of theft. Even, at present, some Santals are behind the bars.

The foregoing description indicate how the indigenous Santals are being deprived of their rights on land, tortured and harassed by the majority influentials

and government functionaries in particular. According to the participants of FGDs and in-depth interviews, the Santals are not being provided with any support either from the administration or from the Judiciary, Law and Order authority or NGOs involved in human rights and legal aid activities. However, they assert that if they are provided with support from somewhere they would be able to survive with due honor and dignity. They are generally getting desperate, in their words "Now we have no alternative, we will fight for our rights and existence, come what may, even we are ready to die." This situation indicates that there is a serious lack in the legal and administrative protection for the Santals. With regard to grabbing of other resources, some of FGDs participations mentioned that influential majority people forcibly take away their livestock, poultry, crops, fruits etc.

Employment and Economic Condition

It is obvious from the FGDs and field-visits that the entire Santal community is mainly dependent on agriculture. But only a negligible portion cultivate their own land others are involved in a non-farm activities such as, non-agricultural labor, small trade, service etc. Average daily wage of Santal agri- Iaborer is Tk. 50.00 and 35.00 in peak and lean seasons respectively. With regard to wage, there is discrimination between male and female laborers. While the average daily wage of a male is Tk. 50.00, for female it is Tk. 40.00 only. At the time of FGDs with female groups, they raised the question about wage discrimination and urged for equal wage like their male counter-part.

It is important to mention that since the Santal people do no have alternative skill or scope for employment, sometimes they are compelled to sell their labor at a low rate. Besides, in lean season, they become unemployed and due to severe economic hardship many of them have to starve day after day. In that case, sometimes they have to sell their labor in advance at low rate. Thus the economic condition of the Santals is deteriorating day by day and they are now among the poorest groups of all indigenous communities.

It may be observed from the above situation that alternative non-farm employment should be provided by Government Agencies and NGOs for improving the socio-economic condition of the Santal community.


All the participants of FGDs opined that lack of education is the main obstacle for advancement of the Santals. Literacy rate among Santal community is very low. It is observed that the new generations Santals are enthusiastic to be educated for improving their socio-economic condition. Education of Santal community suffers from various problems. However, the major impediments of education of the Santals are as follows:

Financial Inability

According to them financial inability is the main obstacle for education of Santal people. Due to severe poverty, they cannot provide teaching materials and incidental facilities (e.g., books, papers, fees, clothing etc.) for their children, which hinder the education of the community at large. FDG participants also mentioned that since it is unthinkable for Santal parents to provide private tutor for their children, most of the students cannot do well in examination majority of them come out with third division at S.S.C and H.S.C levels. Besides, many of them are to supplement their family income since childhood and dropout from the School at an early stage.


As the children speak Santali language at home and in community, they cannot understand Bengali at School. Hence, Santali students cannot communicate with their teachers as well as with their schoolmates. Even they cannot seek permission to go to bathroom. Due to this communication gap, they become victim of mental and physical torture, lose their interest in study, and finally leave the School. Discrimination and Negligence

In classrooms, Santal students face discrimination and negligence by the mainstream schoolmates. In many cases, the mainstream schoolmates do not want to sit by the side of their Santal classmates. Even, in some cases, teachers also undermine the ability of Santal students instead of being sympathetic towards their helplessness. As a result, they feel insulted, neglected and tortured at this early age and lose their zeal to come to school. However, FOD participants

opined that the situation is improving day by day.

Rights and Status of Women

Santal is a male dominated indigenous community. Yet almost every adult woman is involved in farm activities as well as in household ones. Most of them work as agricultural day-laborers. Besides, child rearing, cooking, livestock raising, taking care of husband and elderly people etc. are the responsibilities of women in Santal community. Thus, the quantity of work of women is more than double compared to those of men. Wives being beaten by their husbands on plea of negligence of duties are a very common scenario.

Both female and male participants of FGDs mentioned that the Santal women do not have hereditary rights on land. Only sons inherit rights on land and other resources. If a father does not have any son, only in that case daughter inherits lands and other resources of family. At the time of FGDs, women participations opined that they should have equal rights on land and family resources. However, in this respect both male and female participants agreed that women's rights on land may be on the basis of 60:40 ratio. As mentioned earlier, women participants also urged to eliminate wage discrimination between male and female.

Organizational Association and Access to Services

It is observed from FGD and field-visits that association of Santals with government agencies and NGOs in terms of participation in development programs is very insignificant. Due to lack of information and awareness, they do not have considerable access to micro-credit, Medicare, family planning, maternity and nutritional services etc. On the other hand, at present only two NGOs namely CCDB and SA VERED are providing meager micro-credit and building awareness regarding health, family planning and sanitation.

The above-mentioned situation indicates that there is significant lack of understanding among both the Government agencies and NGOs about the needs and problems of the Santal Community.

Finally, apart form above-mentioned socio-economic issues FGD participants urged for preservation of cultural heritage, upholding human dignity and creating provision for Constitutional Recognition of the Santals and other Adivasis, which may ensure meaningful survival of the community.

Santal Tea workers and other Adivasis in greater Sylhet Region Two FGDs were held mainly for understanding socio-economic condition of Santal tea workers of Chandpur and Surma tea gardens of Chunarughat and Madhabpur area under Hobigonj district in Bangladesh. Currently about 1600 and 2100 permanent workers are involved in producing tea at Chandpur and Surma garden respectively. They are born and brought up in tea gardens; most of them are hereditary workers whose forefathers migrated from Assam,

Meghalaya, Tripura, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal of the then India under British rule. However, findings revealed from FGDs and field-visits are as follows:

Job Condition and Wages

According to prevalent job condition, tea-workers work for eight hours (from 8. 00 Am. to 4.00 Pm) and pluck 18-23 Kgs of tea-leaves daily. Quality of leaf varies from one garden to another. For example, a worker of Chandpur garden is required to pluck 18 Kgs, while the requirement for Surma garden is 23 Kgs. Normally they work six days in a week. They enjoy 20-24 days yearly leave for observing religious and cultural festivities.

Daily wage of a tea worker is only Tk. 28.00 in both the tea gardens. In addition, management provides them with 3.3 Kgs of flower (wheat) as daily family ration. Besides, they can earn only Tk. 0.50 for an extra kg. of plucked leaf in Chandpur garden on overtime basis, while it is Tk.0.40 in Surma garden. It is astonishing that tea workers do no get any wage for the weekly holiday. Hence, with very meager income, the Santal tea workers have been living in acute

poverty generation after generation.

It is very significant to mention that there is a provision of 90 days maternity leave for female workers. In this respect, for example, if any one is compelled to use half of her leave before giving birth to child, she cannot extend her leave further. Rather she must carry her new born baby in the garden for breastfeeding. Even in some case, in saving maternity leave for after delivery period, pregnant workers had given to birth to their child in garden during the work

which is a gross violation of UN Charter on Rights of Child as well as basic human rights.

Scope of Employment

Scope of employment is strictly limited in tea gardens. It is highly significant to mention that normally 'one person from one family' is eligible to get employment as tea worker after the death or retirement of her/his parents. Sometimes management are reluctant to appoint unmarried girls which may prove ruinous for a family.

It is observed that some of the unemployed people work as casual laborer (Thika Sramik) in peak season their number is several times higher than the number required in the garden. They are employed with lower wage and without facilities that are provided to the permanent workers of the tea garden.

Hence, to get rid of this severe unemployment problem FGD participants suggested various income-earning activities such as, tailoring, poultry, fishery etc.


According to company rules, only the permanent workers are eligible for housing facility. In this regard every permanent worker is provided a fixed piece of land where she/he constructs mud wall and company supplies tin and wood for building a small house. It is revealed from field-visit and FGDs that in the Chandpur garden the company provides 1O.5r24 feet and land with tin and wood for building a house in which a family lives together in a small house of this type. It is prohibited shortly for the workers to extend this house or build separate room on their own in the adjacent open plies this is what the inhuman housing condition of a tea garden in Bangladesh owned by Duncan Brothers, a British Tea Company. On the other hand, housing condition is trivially better in Surman Garden compared to that of Chandpur. The size of house is 12 r 24 feet and it necessary, they are eligible to extend or build separate room on their own. Moreover, they can use open places for vegetable garnering and plantation of fruit and wood-trees. It is important to mention that a retied worker can stay only 15 days in company's house from the date of her/his retirement. However, it is significant to mention that at the time of FGD, some of the participants asked for ownership on homestead land referring to the Indian Tea Garden Act in this regard.


Regarding education, the Santal of tea garden face almost similar problems compared with Santals of North Bengal as discussed in the earlier section of this report. However, as the indigenous are the overwhelming majority in the gardens, the students do not face the problems of discrimination, indignation and physical torture here like North Bengal. Although the language problem is not considerable at the primary level in Chandpur area as the ethnic mix is very varied and they tend to use a broken Bengali, but the students of secondary and college education face similar problems that they face in North Bengal. On the other hand, the Santal students of Surma face a lot of problem. At primary level, SMNB started to run a school with Surma garden Santal teachers, which was really beneficial for the children of the community.

That school is closed now. As a result the Santal children of Surma garden are facing acute language problem like that of North Bengal. Therefore, FGD participants strongly suggested establishing a school where children can learn education in their mother language up to class five. They believe that this initiative can help children to continue further study.

Health Facility

Health facility in terms of Medicare, family planning, water-supply and sanitation is very normal in both the areas. Twenty families are to share drinking water from tube well in both the gardens. They use open place or open pit-latrine for easing themselves. Most of the Santal families use well or fountainwater for meeting necessities.

Organizational Association and Access to Services

It is significantly observed that activities of non-government development organization are strictly forbidden in Chandpur garden, while management of Surma garden is little bit liberal in this regard. Currently, only HEED Bangladesh, an NGO, is working with a few Santal families and providing them with micro-credit for cattle rearing, poultry and vegetable gardening. However, it is obvious that the Santals of the Surma garden, like other workers, almost do not have any access to development services of the NGOs.

Finally, it is observed that Santals are living in a mixed culture in terms of language, worship and religio-cultural festivities together with at least 30 indigenous groups working in tea gardens. Again, it is important to note that referring to their heroic role in the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971; the FGD participants urge to acknowledge the contribution of freedom fighters and asked for constitutional recognition of the indigenous peoples in

Bangladesh. Suggestions and Recommendations for Development Intervention At the time of FGDs, interviews and field-visits, the responding participants were asked what steps can be taken for improving the life situation of Santal community. In this connection, a good number of suggestions were offered. The suggestions are as follows:

Employment and Income Generating Activities ( EIGAS)

In respect of Employment and Income Generating activities, the major suggestions are:

i) tailoring

ii) ii) poultry

iii) small trade

iv) livestock rearing

v) pond fishery( especially for tea garden) etc.

Besides, cooperative farming, vegetable gardening and bamboo work are also suggested as EIGAs. Most of them suggested providing easy loan for the

above-mentioned EIGAs and creating marketing outlets for the


Land and Security

For stopping land grabbing and security, the suggestions offered by the

Santals are:

i) effective administrative measures by civil and law and order enforcing authorities.

ii) enforcement of law

iii) awareness building about land related rules and regulations

iv) inclusion of area based representative in land-selling identification committee

v) restoration of unity and harmony within the Santal community etc.


For education, the Santals of both the areas suggested to establish sufficient number of schools to teach their children, at least unto class-V, in Santali

language and to appoint one-third of the school teachers from among their own community. They also suggested to more provision for stipend for the

Santal students after completion of fifth grade of their study.

Development and Rights of Women

About development activities of women suggestions are:

i) training on sewing and supply for sewing machine

ii) training on poultry and crafts

iii) easy loan for small trade

iv) marketing facilities of products

v) equal wage

vi) awareness buildings etc.

On the other hand, as women do not inherit lands and resources, they suggested that women's rights on lands may be given on the basis of 60:40 ratio through enactment of law.

Participation in Decision Marking

For raising their demands properly, the Santals suggest for inclusion of their representative in District and Thana development committees particularly for indigenous areas.

Wage and other Services

The Santals of tea gardens, in particular, suggested to provide wage for weekly holidays and to increase their wage and related facilities as a whole.

Besides, they suggested to improve other services such as, medicate, family planning, water-supply, sanitation etc. by tea companies, while, for these services, Santals of North Bengal Santals Suggested for immediate intervention by GAs and NGOs.

Homemade Wine

Most of the Santal women, in particular suggested to stop the home made wine for reducing misuse of money and getting rid of physical harassment by addicted husbands. However, the Santals also suggested taking necessary measures for preserving their cultural heritage such as, dances, songs, festivals etc.


It is evident from the FGD findings that the life situation of the Santals is vulnerable in economic, social, cultural and human rights contexts. However, in view of needs, problems and suggestions of the Santals for development interventions the following recommendations may be offered:

a) Immediate development interventions by both Government agencies and NGOs are greatly needed for meaningful existence and upliftment of theSantal community.

b) Initially some relief-oriented services such as low cost housing, primary health care, safe drinking water etc. may be provided by the government and non-government development agencies.

c) Human resource development training, credit support for EIGAs and animation programs may be undertaken for making the Santals economically and socially viable and self-sustained. CCDB model may be followed in this regard.

d) For making Santal women viable income earner, financial, technical and marketing support may be extended to tailoring and other home-based EIGAs.

Besides, inheritance of lands and recourses should be established through enactment of law for Santal women.

e) Education program should contain non-formal primary education.

f) General-vocational-adult and social education should be initiated. In this respect, medium of instruction should be Santali language up to class -V, and in Santal inhabited areas, at least one-third of the school teachers should be appointed from among the Santal community.

g) Government Agencies and NGOs should introduce comprehensive health program including medicare, public health, facilities, family planning and reproductive health services in Santal inhabited areas.

h) Effective measures should be taken by the government functionaries, human rights agencies and civil society members for stopping land-grabbing, eviction, harassment, discrimination, human indignation etc.

i) For solving the problems relating to lands, a land Commission may be formed headed by the District Judge and consisting of representatives from GA, NGO and indigenous, for the Adivasi areas, in particular.

j) As most of the Santals are poor and unable to pay for legal support to face litigation. Assistance should be provided to them whenever necessary.

k) Awareness building among majority people for creating empathetic and harmonious outlook towards the Santals and other Adivasis should be initiated.

l) Through providing numerous musical instruments and financial support, preservation of Santal cultural heritage may be initiated.

m) Steps may be taken to ensure participation of the Santals in planning and policy making bodies of the development agencies.


1) Ali, Ahsan (1998). Santals of Bangladesh, Institute of Social Research & Applied Anthropology, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

2) Kamal, Mesbah; Chakraborty, Eshani and Naasrin, Jobaida (2001). Alien in Own Land: A Discourse on Marginalization of Indigenous Peoples in

North Bengal, Research and Development Collective (RDC), Dhaka.

3) Khan, M. I (2003). 'Ethnic Communities and Social Alienation: Tea-Garden Workers in Bangladesh', published in Mesbah Kamal and Arifatul Kibria

(ed), Endangered Offspring of the Soil: Indigenous People's Existence at Stake, Reflections on Bangladesh and Eastern India, RDC, Dhaka.

4) Murmu, Irin (2003). Development Efforts of Santal Women in Dinajpur, (Unpublished Master's Thesis), Institute of Social Welfare and Research,

Dhaka University.

5) Rahman, Mizanur (ed) (2002). In Search of a Withering Community: The Santals of Bangladesh, Empowerment Through Law of the Common People

(ELCOP), Dhaka.

6) Timm, R. W (2000). 'The Human Rights Situation of the Adivasi in Bangladesh', Paper Presented in the National Seminar on the Tribal Culture and

Development, Institute of Applied Anthropology, Dhaka (14-16 April).

Source: Ethnic Community Development Organization – Journal of Ethnic Affairs
Volume II, August 2006

Share on Google Plus

About Tudu Marandy and all


Post a Comment